The following was produced in partnership with Google.
Today’s kids are the luckiest in history, at least when it comes to entertainment and information. Online access means that if they want to know where they can see a real-life axolotl, how to make towers out of glue, or which of Saturn’s moons is most habitable they can turn to Google to pore through hundreds of billions of web pages in fractions of a second. Once they found the answer, they can watch a video on it and share the information with a friend — instantly. It all makes the old-school encyclopedias we grew up with look downright plebeian.
Of course, the golden age of information isn’t without its pitfalls.Parents raising online kids worry about things like cyberbullying and phishing attacks. Less dramatically, parents have to worry about the potential effects of excessive screen time.
Keeping kids off the internet simply isn’t a good option. A kid who can’t exist online safely is a kid who’s not ready for the future. And a parent who would deny their kid the conveniences of the connected world isn’t doing their job. Luckily, there are things you can do as a parent, both behaviors you can teach and tools you can use, to ensure you’re raising digital citizens ready for the 21st century.
1. Set Boundaries.
Maybe you don’t want them playing addictive and violent games. Maybe you don’t want them on Snapchat. No matter your reasoning, parents should feel entitled to oversee their kids’ online habits. A good rule of thumb: If you’re not out of bounds paying attention to a subject in the real world (say, who are their friends, and where will they be after school), then it’s in bounds online (i.e. who they are chatting with, and what apps they’re using).
Especially when they’re younger, you can establish this hands on connection with them — be open and honest, always — and then oversee app permission and the like from your devices. How? Google’s Family Link, a tool for parents who want to manage their family’s online lives, offers one of the clearest ways in.
- Step 1. Download the Family Link app on your child’s Android device or Chromebook and on your own mobile device to manage their accounts.
- Step 2. While setting up Google accounts for each of your kids on Family Link, manage content permissions for each account.
- Step 3. Open the “Apps Installed” card and tap “More.”
- Step 4. Tap the name of the app you want to block.
- Step 5. Tap “App permissions” and turn the permission off.
That’s it. Oh, and note that you can also approve or decline your child’s app downloads before they’re installed on their devices.
2. Prioritize Sleep
Using a device into the wee hours is the modern equivalent of sneakily reading with a flashlight under the covers. But unlike Harry Potter books, parents can easily keep their kids from surfing the internet all night by setting a bedtime using the digital wellbeing tools from the Family Link App. With them, you can also choose what time their device will unlock in the morning. Why does this matter? Because of blue light. The blue light emitted by phones and tablets is disruptive to the circadian rhythm, the body’s natural sleep and wake cycle. How? It goes a little something like this.
First, blue light hits the eyes. There are receptors in the eyes that are directly affected by the blue spectrum. When they take in blue light, a signal is sent from the optic nerve to the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the hypothalamus.
A signal is next sent to the pineal gland. The pineal begins to suppress the production of melatonin.
By bedtime, body temperature’s high and the heart is pumping hard — at least compared to a body getting ready for sleep. When melatonin is suppressed, your body doesn’t get the signals to get calm, cool off, and shut down. Getting to sleep is hard. With the hours lost, waking is harder. The next day becomes a slog. And all because of a bit of blue light.
3. Keep a Calendar.
Google Calendar makes it incredibly easy to share calendars; chances are you already do so at work or with your spouse. Once your kids are old enough, give them the responsibility of putting their own extracurricular activities, meet-ups with friends, and other activities into a calendar they share with you. It’s a great way to give them some responsibility, and you can even set up Google Maps to remind you when it’s time to leave so you don’t miss a dance recital or leave them stranded at soccer practice. You can also create events like “finish biology project” or “go outside” to nudge your kids into good habits as they learn to manage their schedule. These can work in tandem with the screen time controls that get them off their devices to ensure that the time they’re away from screens is time well-spent.
4. Keep Tabs on Your Kids
We can’t prove this scientifically, but we’d estimate that a sizeable percentage of parent-to-kid text messages are of the “Did you make it to (location)?” variety. Instead of annoying your kid with these messages (and worrying yourself if they don’t reply), you can pull up their location within the Family Link app, a way to check in on them without annoying them.
5. Be Watchful, But Also Be Transparent
You already know that your kids are going to have a million questions about why you’re keeping such a close eye on and limiting their device usage. And while “because I said so” is a tempting response, you’re better off being open with your kids because hey, you’ve got some good reasons for this stuff. So what’s such a unicorn of a conversation look like? Something like this:
Parent: It’s time to turn off the tablet.
Kid: Awww! But why?
Parent: It’s like how you can’t just eat sugar all the time. Your body needs a variety of mental and physical stimulation.
Kid: Well, instead of this game, how about I watch a show or chat with friends?
Parent: That’s not what I mean.
Kid: The show will be educational AND talking to friends is social.
Parent: I appreciate that. That’s why we helped set up games, chat groups, and give you a fair amount of freedom online. But you need to limit the time so that you can exercises, so that you get great sleep, and so that you simply don’t overdo it. Scientists are only just studying what screen time can do to developing brains. If past studies are any indication, they’re probably going to find out that, as in everything, moderation is key.
Parent: Besides, I need help with the cookies.
Kid: Cool, but only if I get to eat like a giant spoonful of raw dough.
6. Use a Digital Time Out.
Ideally, you’ll raise an angel who never makes any mistakes or deserves any punishment. Back in the real world, kids are people, and people make mistakes. If your kid screws up or you think their device is becoming a harmful distraction, you can give them a digital time out, locking it using the Family Link app. A locked device can’t be opened and won’t display notifications, but it can still make calls in case of an emergency. And even if you never end up using this feature, knowing that you can be enough to nudge your kid in the right direction the next time you find yourself in an argument with them.
7. Don’t Connect Your Kids to a Credit Card
Apps and games are rife with opportunities to spend money, and it might not seem like a big deal for a kid to drop a few bucks on extra lives. But kids aren’t exactly known for their impulse control, so giving them access to games that are designed to get you to spend money is a dangerous proposition. So before you give your kids their first phone or tablet, make sure to go to your Google Play settings to make sure you set up a family payment method that requires your approval for all purchases. You’ll be happy you did.
Three Real Stories of Kids Wasting Tons of Their Parents Money Online
- One seven-year-old dropped nearly six grand of his parents’ money on a certain mobile game that included some well-known dinosaurs. That includes $2,000 that he spent in one hour.
- A 15-year-old racked up $6,500 in charges in about two weeks of playing social media games. That’s nearly $500 a day.
- The worst offender we’ve found is a teenager in Belgium who found a way to spend $46,000 (!) in three months using his grandfather’s credit card, the equivalent of more than 9 million virtual gold pieces in his game of choice. Yikes.
8. Be Internet Awesome.
Google’s Be Internet Awesome program is designed to teach kids the fundamentals of digital citizenship and safety, giving them the confidence to explore the online world. Start your kids off into online literacy with Interland, a browser-based game with levels dedicated to five pillars of internet safety: spotting scams, protecting personal information, being kind online, and reporting inappropriate or questionable content online. Once they make it through all of the levels, your kids will be able to teach you a thing or two about good internet habits. It might be the first time, but it won’t be the last. You can also use the family guide and tips to help you talk about online safety with your kids as they explore the program. Because good online habits are something — like good eating habits — that you must continue to mold and work on throughout your life. Now there’s a lesson for the whole family.